More police now sporting cameras on their bodies

Footage provides accountability, but at risk of compromising individuals' privacy

  • Laurel police officer, Pfc. Aaron Waddell wears a camera mounted on his sunglasses. While Laurel officers are currently required to wear them, Baltimore City and Baltimore County police departments, like other departments nationwide, are considering adopting the body-mounted devices.
Laurel police officer, Pfc. Aaron Waddell wears a camera mounted… (Doug Kapustin, Baltimore…)
January 04, 2014|By Jessica Anderson, The Baltimore Sun

Officer Aaron Waddell pulled over a gray Dodge Caravan on Route 198 in Laurel and asked the driver for his license and registration. Waddell told the man why he stopped him — a suspected seat belt violation — and added, "Just to let you know, you're being recorded."

Such warnings could become more common as police across Maryland consider following Laurel's lead and equipping officers with small video cameras to record public interactions — part of an effort to limit complaints. Even the most mundane traffic stop can devolve into a dispute, and supporters say a recording can guard all sides from unfounded allegations.

But the new technology — now under consideration by the Baltimore Police Department and the Maryland State Police — has also proved difficult to reconcile with concerns about privacy and consent.

Though civil-rights advocates agree that video cameras can improve accountability, the American Civil Liberties Union cautioned recently that without proper oversight they could become "yet another system for routine surveillance." And some officers question whether the cameras will sour relations with the public.

In Laurel, where police began rolling out cameras last year at a cost of $2,000 apiece, some in the department were initially reluctant to submit to the near-constant recording. Now, though, Waddell can't imagine working without his camera, a pen-size device worn on sunglasses or a headband.

"I have anxiety if I don't have it on," said the patrolman, who pulled over 1,000 people in 2012. "Just by the amount of contact I have with people I get complaints."

Everything went smoothly in the Route 198 stop. The driver politely accepted a citation and buckled up; Waddell switched off the device and moved along.

Recent cases in Baltimore have demonstrated how initial witness accounts can differ widely from official explanations. When Tyrone West died in police custody last summer, several witnesses said he had been beaten. Officers were cleared of wrongdoing, though his family continues to question the finding.

The advent of the cameras is the latest move in a long struggle by police to adapt to technology that has put a recording device in the hands of everyone who carries a cellphone. Officers are under increased scrutiny, because every public action can be captured and posted online in moments.

Often, police complain that videos shot by bystanders fail to capture an entire event. With the cameras, police aim to be protector and enforcer, arguing that the footage could help keep them accountable, provide evidence of crimes and resolve disputes over conduct.

But it also means the government is collecting more information, which raises questions about the data's distribution, retention and storage.

"This is something departments are trying to get their hands around," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a policy think tank working for the U.S. Department of Justice to develop guidelines for the use of police cameras. "Police encounter citizens when they are at their worst. There are all sorts of privacy issues raised."

Robert Cherry, president of the city police union, acknowledged some benefits of the cameras but fears they will diminish public trust in officers.

"We're a profession and now just someone who walks around with a camera? It takes away a lot of interaction," he said. Some agencies that use cameras have struggled in court because jurors don't care about officer testimony — only what's caught on video, he added.

"Unfortunately, cameras don't pick up everything," Cherry said.

But police officials considering the technology believe it enhances credibility of officers at a time when they are already being recorded.

Baltimore police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts has indicated that he wants to see officers outfitted with the body-worn cameras. A recently released strategic plan calls for a look at whether cameras could help save money paid out from lawsuits.

A similar study done when Batts headed the Oakland, Calif., Police Department called for a "well-thought out policy that protects officers' and citizens' constitutional rights and privacy." The department acquired hundreds of cameras in 2010, and officers were directed to have them on for many public interactions.

The ACLU has cited an incident there — after Batts left — in warning about the potential pitfalls of cameras. Two officers were disciplined after turning a camera off during a clash with Occupy Oakland protesters in late 2011.

"The balance that needs to be struck is to ensure that officers can't manipulate the video record, while also ensuring that officers are not subjected to a relentless regime of surveillance without any opportunity for shelter from constant monitoring," the organization said in a statement.

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